Everyone sits in the dark and watches movies. Few of us really listen to them, that is, listen to the music that accompanies those often-indelible images. But would we be laughing, crying, gasping at the appropriate moments if all we heard was dialogue? Of course not. The subtle form of musical manipulation that is the art of the film composer is as essential to our moviegoing experience as the most intricate plot, impressive acting, or stunning photography.
"The key use of music almost from the very beginning has been to elicit that emotional response from a viewer," explains film and TV music historian, professor, and Daily Variety reporter Jon Burlingame. "Depending on how fast it is, the tone and colors, music can make you feel good. It can make you feel sad. It can bring an element of terror to the proceedings. And it can bring tension. Music is a much bigger factor than most people realize."
The significance of music to film will be emphasized during a talk Burlingame delivers this Thursday as part of the New World Symphony's Music in Film festival, a two-week journey exploring the lush territory of sound married to images. Three concerts supplemented by simultaneous screenings hail movie tunes from the Silent Era to Hollywood's Golden Age. Programs this Saturday and Sunday include a restored version of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky, with its stirring Sergei Prokofiev soundtrack.
Next week "The Sounds of Silents" highlights contemporary compositions created for Robert Wiene's 1919 Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Walter Ruttman's innovative 1922 short Opus One: Lightplay. Popular cinema will be feted next Sunday in the festival's final outing, "A Night at the Oscars," which showcases snippets from big Hollywood productions such as Citizen Kane, An American in Paris, and Gone with the Wind and their scores by greats Bernard Herrmann, George Gershwin, and Max Steiner. As an adjunct to the festival this week, the Alliance Cinema will screen a series of seldom-seen landmark movies, including Eisenstein's Strike from 1924 and Paul Wegener's eerie The Golem from 1920.
The grim Bernard Herrmanns of the past may have given way to the zany Danny Elfmans of the present, but film scores haven't lost their ability to resonate. Witness the ever-increasing sales of movie soundtracks. "If the movie moved you, or you were touched, or left the theater feeling good, a lot of people want a kind of aural souvenir," Burlingame says. "The soundtrack is something you can go buy right away, put on your CD player, and in one way or another relive the experience." Nothing beats hearing it live, though.